The Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2020
There was definitely a paucity of new movie releases last year, with most of the studios holding back their films until the COVID pandemic is over. And the films that have gone straight-to-streaming have been pretty unremarkable. Herewith is out Best of 2020 list, albeit short. And since it was a year of stay-at-home viewing, we’ve put together a list of the Top Streaming series that we’ve enjoyed over the past several years. Stay safe.
Accident (1967) From Joseph Losey, the legendary director of “The Servant,” “The Go-Between” and “The Assassination of Trotsky,” comes this classic melodrama with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. When one of his students is killed in a car accident, an Oxford professor (Dirk Bogarde) recounts the circumstances of their meeting. But as these turbulent memories unfold, they reveal a series of shocking relationships betrayed by adultery, obsession and self-destruction in which nothing is what it seems and everything has its cost. “Accident” was the second of three brilliant collaborations between filmmaker Losey and playwright Pinter; the first was the 1963 masterpiece “The Servant” and the third, the 1971 classic “The Go-Between.” Stanley Baker, Michael York, Vivien Merchant and Delphine Seyrig co-star.
Alejandro Jodorowsky: 4K Restoration Collection Deluxe box set includes the latest film by the great Chilean French artist/filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, “Psychomagic, A Healing Art,” as well as “Fando y Lis,” “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” restored in 4K on Blu-ray, along with new bonus features and CD soundtracks of the latter two titles. At the age of 91, Jodorowsky is as relevant as he’s ever been. In addition to completing “Psychomagic, A Healing Art,” he supervised the color correction of the 4K restorations of his essential films using the original 35mm elements, with stunning and vibrant results.
Bad Education (2019) The fascinating true story of one of the largest public-school embezzlement scandals in America. Inspired by the true story that rocked the town of Roslyn, NY in 2004 and garnered attention nationwide, the film centers on the stunning impact and aftermath of a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme, and follows Frank Tassone (High Jackman) and Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who reign over a popular Long Island school district on the verge of the nation’s top spot, spurring record college admissions and soaring property values. Between them, they racked up over $11.2 million dollars in extravagant personal expenses. Jackman and Janney are superb as cheaters-in-arms; direction and supporting cast are top-notch. Originally aired on HBO.
Dodsworth (1936) Newly restored in 2019 by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Film Archive and The Film Foundation in association with the Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Family Trust. Restoration funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. William Wyler directs this superb adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel for master producer Samuel Goldwyn featuring an amazing ensemble of actors led by the great Walter Huston. A tale of middle-aged regret and recriminations and the rebirth of long dormant passions, Wyler cannily gets by the production code and delivers a decidedly adult drama that more comfortably sits alongside the pre-Codes than the post-Codes. Millionaire motor magnate Sam Dodsworth (Huston) sells the Dodsworth auto works in the small midwestern burg of Zenith to a large combine and embarks on a long-postponed honeymoon abroad. But long-time bride Fran (Ruth Chatterton) turns runaway when her head is turned by the swells of the continent (David Niven, Paul Lukas, Gregory Gaye). Bereft and adrift, Dodsworth furthers his friendship with young American widow Edith (Mary Astor) and the relationship uncorks long-buried desires in Dodsworth. But Fran is not done with Dodsworth, yet. Long unavailable, “Dodsworth” returns to print in a stunning restoration that properly gives new life to one of the greatest pictures of the 1930s – resplendent with glorious Black and White cinematography, fabulous art direction and superb mise-en-scene in service to a truly sophisticated cast.
First Cow (2019) John Magaro, Orion Lee,Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, René Auberjonois, Alia Shawkat. Two travelers, on the run from a band of vengeful hunters in the 1820s Northwest, dream of striking it rich — but their tenuous plan to make their fortune on the frontier comes to rely on the secret use of a wealthy businessman’s prized dairy cow. With their scheme landing somewhere between honest ingenuity and pure grift, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt finds a graceful and deeply moving origin story of America in their unlikely friendship and fragile life at the margins. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2019 and screened to great acclaim at the New York Film Festival in September 2019 and the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020.
Five Graves to Cairo (1943) From Billy Wilder, the legendary director of “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Stalag 17,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment,” comes this wartime espionage thriller starring Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff, Erich von Stroheim and Peter van Eyck. John J. Bramble (Tone), the sole survivor of a British tank crew, makes his way to a desolate desert town where he is given refuge by a hotel owner (Tamiroff) and a French chambermaid (Baxter) who prepare to receive General Erwin Rommel (Stroheim) and his German staff. Posing as the hotel’s waiter, Bramble attempts to infiltrate Rommel’s inner circle and report the general’s plans to the Allies. Co-written by Wilder and Charles Brackett
Ford v Ferrari (2019) by James Mangold; Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Tracy Letts, Remo Girone. Based on the remarkable true story about Ford Motor Company’s attempt to create the world’s fastest car. American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and the fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Bale), together battled corporate interference and the laws of physics to build a revolutionary race car (the Ford GT40) and take on Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966. Good old-fashioned filmmaking.
Joker (2019) An original, standalone story that explores the psyche of Arthur Fleck (the Joker to come) — indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix — a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night … but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study. Co-stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen. An auspicious change-of-pace for director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” franchise) and a tour-de-force for Phoenix.
Mephisto (1981 — Hungary) Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1981, “Mephisto” is a malevolent masterwork from Hungarian director István Szabó. It concerns a passionate but struggling actor (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who remains in Germany during the Nazi regime and reaps the rewards of this Faustian pact by finally achieving the stardom he has long craved. Brilliantly adapted from Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel, it is presented in a stunning 4K restoration by the Hungarian National Film Archive.
Parasite (2019 — South Korea) Directed by Bong Joon Ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer,” “Mother”). Kim Ki-taek and his family don’t put a lot of effort into steady jobs and hard work. They live in a dirty apartment in a basement and make a small amount of money, enough to survive, by completing low-paying side jobs and gigs. One day, Ki-taek’s son, Ki-woo, receives an offer that could help improve the family’s situation: Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk, plans to study abroad and suggests that Ki-woo take over his English tutoring job with a wealthy family. Ki-woo is hired immediately, but uses his position, manipulation and lies, to get the family’s staff fired and replaced with the members of his family. Soon, a symbiotic relationship forms between the two families. The Kims provide “indispensable” luxury services while the Parks obliviously bankroll their entire household. When a parasitic interloper threatens the Kims’ newfound comfort, a savage, underhanded battle for dominance breaks out, threatening to destroy the fragile ecosystem between the Kims and the Parks. By turns darkly hilarious and heart-wrenching, “Parasite” showcases a modern master at the top of his game. “Parasite” is the first Asian film to win an Oscar for Best Film.
Yes, God, Yes (2020) An irreverent satire on religious principles and hormonal behavior, the film follows the sexual awakening of a Catholic High School teen girl; set in the early 2000s. Alice (Natalia Dyer), a strait-laced Catholic student, discovers more than she bargained for after an innocent AOL chat turns racy. Seeking redemption, she attends a mysterious religious retreat to try to suppress her urges, only to come face to face with everything she’s been trying so desperately to avoid. Original and charming script and direction by first-time director Karen Maine.
You Don’t Nomi (2019) In 1995, director Paul Verhoeven’s salacious “Showgirls” — a nasty, over-the-top sex-and-sadism filled exploration of the trials and tribulations of a young woman who hitchhikes to Las Vegas to make it as a chorus girl — opened with an NC-17 rating and alienated literally every film critic in the country. The film was trounced in reviews and died at the boxoffice. Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas had a falling out and star Elizabeth Berkley (who played the lead, Nomi Malone), fresh off the bland TV series “Saved by the Bell,” was dropped by her agent and was pretty much black-listed in Hollywood. Because of its notoriety, “Showgirls” was a success on home video; since its release it has amassed north of $100 million. In the intervening years, “Showgirls” has become a cult classic, and has been re-evaluated as more than just a sensational, trashy nudie exploitation film, transcending the “so-bad-it’s-good” category. The film has been defended by such critics as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Even Jacques Rivette, founder of the French New Wave, piped in, calling it in 1998 “one of the great American films of the last few years” for its unflinching look at the dark side of entertainment celebrityhood. Even Berkley’s career picked up; she went on to star in dozens of Broadway productions — to critical raves — and carved out scores of roles on TV. In this documentary, a chorus of film critics and fervent devotees explore the complicated afterlife of the film, from its disastrous release to cult adoration and extraordinary redemption. Director Jeffrey McHale intersperses clips from other Verhoeven movies to place “Showgirls” in the context of the director’s ouvre (most of his films have contained vibrant scenes of sex and violence (“Turkish Delight,” “Katie Tippel,” “RoboCop,” “Total Recall” and the notorious “Basic Instinct”) as well as centering it among other sex-oriented big screen productions (“Fatal Attraction” among them). And there’s plenty of footage from midnight showings. Unfortunately, there’s no modern interviews with Verhoeven, Eszterhas, Berkley or co-stars Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon (both of whose careers have flourished, thank you). All in all it’s a fun adventure.
And don’t forget the following Criterion releases:
Army of Shadows (1969 — France) The most personal film by the underworld poet Jean-Pierre Melville, who had participated in the French Resistance himself, this tragic masterpiece, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, recounts the struggles and sacrifices of those who fought in the Resistance. Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and the incomparable Simone Signoret star as intrepid underground fighters who must grapple with their conception of honor in their battle against Hitler’s regime. Long underappreciated in France and unseen in the United States, the atmospheric and gripping thriller Army of Shadows is now widely recognized as the summit of Melville’s career, channeling the exquisite minimalism of his gangster films to create an unsparing tale of defiance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Crash (1996) For this icily erotic fusion of flesh and machine, David Cronenberg adapted J. G. Ballard’s future-shock novel of the 1970s into one of the most singular and provocative films of the 1990s. A traffic collision involving a disaffected commercial producer, James (James Spader), and an enigmatic doctor, Helen (Holly Hunter), brings them, along with James’s wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger, in a sublimely detached performance), together in a crucible of blood and broken glass — and it’s not long before they are all initiated into a kinky, death-obsessed underworld of sadomasochistic car-crash fetishists for whom twisted metal and scar tissue are the ultimate turn-ons. Controversial from the moment it premiered at Cannes — where it won a Special Jury Prize “for originality, for daring, and for audacity” — “Crash” has since taken its place as a key text of late-20th-century cinema, a disturbingly seductive treatise on the relationships between humanity and technology, sex and violence, that is as unsettling as it is mesmerizing.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975 — Germany) When a young woman spends the night with an alleged terrorist, her quiet, ordered life falls into ruins. “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” portrays an anxious era in West Germany amid a crumbling postwar political consensus. Katharina, though apparently innocent, suddenly becomes a suspect, falling prey to a vicious smear campaign by the police and a ruthless tabloid journalist that tests the limits of her dignity and her sanity. Crafting one of the most accessible and direct works of 1970s political filmmaking, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta deliver a powerful adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel, a stinging commentary on state power, individual freedom, and media manipulation that is as relevant today as when it was released.
Le petit soldat (1963 — France) Before his convention-shattering debut, “Breathless,” had even premiered, Jean-Luc Godard leapt into the making of his second feature, a thriller that would tackle the most controversial subject in France: the use of torture in the Algerian War. Despite his lack of political convictions, photojournalist Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) is roped into a paramilitary group waging a shadow war in Geneva against the Algerian independence movement. Anna Karina (in her first collaboration with Godard, whose camera is visibly besotted with her) is beguiling as the mysterious woman with whom Forestier becomes infatuated. Banned for two and a half years by French censors for its depiction of brutal tactics on the part of the French government and the Algerian fighters alike, “Le petit soldat” finds the young Godard already retooling cinema as a vehicle for existential inquiry, political argument, and ephemeral portraiture — in other words, as a medium for delivering “truth twenty-four times per second.”
Pierrot le fou (1965 — France) Dissatisfied in marriage and life, Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) takes to the road with the babysitter, his ex-lover Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), and leaves the bourgeois world behind. Yet this is no normal road trip: the 10th feature in six years by genius auteur Jean-Luc Godard is a stylish mash-up of anticonsumerist satire, au courant politics, and comic-book aesthetics, as well as a violent, zigzag tale of, as Godard called them, “the last romantic couple.” With blissful color imagery by cinematographer Raoul Coutard and Belmondo and Karina at their most animated, “Pierrot le fou” is one of the high points of the French New Wave, and was Godard’s last frolic before he moved ever further into radical cinema.
The War of the Worlds (1953) A mysterious, meteorlike object has landed in a small California town. All clocks have stopped. A fleet of glowing green UFOs hovers menacingly over the entire globe. The Martian invasion of Earth has begun, and it seems that nothing — neither military might nor the scientific know-how of nuclear physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) — can stop it. In the expert hands of genre specialists George Pal and Byron Haskin, H. G. Wells’s end-of-civilization classic receives a chilling Cold War-era update, complete with hallucinatory Technicolor and visionary, Oscar-winning special effects. Emblazoned with iconographic images of 1950s science fiction, “The War of the Worlds” is both an influential triumph of visual imagination and a still-disquieting document of the wonder and terror of the atomic age.
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